Asylum Seekers: Right to Work

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 11 January 2017.

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Photo of Adrian Bailey Adrian Bailey Labour/Co-operative, West Bromwich West 11:00, 11 January 2017

Before I call Alison Thewliss to move the motion, I have had a request from Stuart McDonald to participate in the debate. May I confirm that both the mover of the motion and the Minister are happy for him to do so?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered asylum seekers and the right to work.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Bailey. I have taken an interest in the rights of asylum seekers for some years now. One of the very first events I attended as a councillor in Glasgow in 2007 was the opening of Refugee Week, the inspirational and ever-growing festival co-ordinated by the Scottish Refugee Council. That was the first time I heard directly the testimonies, experiences and views of those who had fled violence and persecution. They told their stories through music and dance as well as in words, because the trauma they were expressing was often beyond description.

The right to seek asylum is set out in the universal declaration on human rights, and it is one of the most important obligations in international law. However, it has become clear to me over the past few years that sadly in the UK we are not fulfilling our duties to asylum seekers. We often keep them in a situation of destitution and danger, with little acknowledgement of the difficulties that led them to flee. Worse still, we are devaluing these precious human beings. Asylum seekers have skills they could bring and talents they could share. These are people who have overcome everything and lost so much. The very least we should do as a nation is give them a means of living in dignity, and I believe, as I will lay out, that there are circumstances in which they should have the right to work. That is consistent with the position that the Scottish National party took, along with Labour Members, in proposing amendments to the Immigration Act 2016 to enable asylum seekers to work if they had been waiting more than six months for a decision. The UK Government sadly rejected the amendments.

With no permission to work, asylum seekers survive—it is barely survival in many cases—on £5 a day. That affects more than 8,000 asylum seekers in the UK. The right to work was withdrawn by the Labour Government in 2002. At present, asylum seekers can work only if they have been waiting for a decision for longer than one year and they have skills relevant to the occupations on the shortage occupation list, which covers only jobs that few or no UK nationals are able to perform. Those are often very specific jobs, such as various types of scientists and engineers, as well as trades such as professional dancer or musician, which require specific qualifications and experience, as well as an employer who is willing to take a person on when they do not know how long they may be in the UK.

Photo of Julian Knight Julian Knight Conservative, Solihull

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. I know she does a great deal of work in this area. I want to focus briefly on volunteering. In Solihull, many volunteers provide an outstanding service to our communities. Solihull Welcome, for example, supports new asylum seekers with great information, food and clothes. Does she agree that to integrate asylum seekers further into society, we must promote voluntary work?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I agree, and I congratulate the organisation in Solihull on doing that. However, I have found in some of my casework that there are barriers even to volunteering. The Home Office has held that against one of my constituents, whom I had intended to mention later, who was volunteering for the British Red Cross. When he applied for naturalisation as a British citizen, that was held against him as a means of demonstrating bad character. It is bizarre, but his volunteering and his good work in an attempt to integrate into the community in Glasgow was held against him.

It can also be difficult for asylum seekers to prove that they have professional qualifications and so should have access to the shortage occupation list. Depending on the circumstances in which they fled, they may not have documentation, and it may cost to transfer or update their qualifications. That approach prohibits asylum seekers from offering their skills while they are still waiting on decisions. Many asylum seekers have been waiting for longer than six months. The latest figures that I can find suggest that more than 20% of asylum seekers wait longer than six months to have a decision made. During that time, they cannot bring in any money, and they find it difficult to support their family.

The recent working paper, “Restricting the economic rights of asylum seekers: cost implications,” published by Dr Lucy Mayblin and Poppy James at the University of Warwick, outlines the significant savings there would be to the public purse should asylum seekers be given the right to work. There would be a benefit to the UK if they were allowed to do so. Dr Mayblin’s research indicates that significant savings could be made on asylum support payments—both section 95 and section 4 —if asylum seekers were given the right to work. If just 25% of all asylum seekers currently receiving asylum support participated in the labour market, that would reduce the overall asylum support bill, both in cash and for accommodation, under sections 94 and 4, excluding staffing and admin costs, from more than £173.5 million to just over £130 million. That would save about—I rounded the figures up, because some of them are lengthy—£43 million in asylum support payments, without making asylum seekers destitute. If 25% of all asylum seekers were able to obtain employment, section 95 payments would decrease from about £63 million to £47 million, and section 4 cash payments would decrease from more than £9 million to just less than £7 million, based on 2014-15 figures.

Even with increases in the asylum support rate to 70% of the jobseeker’s allowance rate, if we enabled 25% labour market participation, savings could be made to the asylum support bill. Estimates suggest that the total asylum support bill—again in cash and for accommodation, under sections 94 and 4, and excluding staffing and admin costs—could decrease from £173.5 million to £152 million, a saving of about £21 million. The Government are always looking to make savings, so I offer helpful suggestions for where those might be made.

Those figures, however, represent more than just money. Case studies available on a host of websites, such as that of the Scottish Refugee Council and the Regional Refugee Forum North East, speak of dignity, and of the impact on family life of not being able to work. I quote from one of the testimonies on the RRF website:

“It’s a degrading situation. You feel useless in a place that sings democracy. Not being able to work is degrading to me. It is something that has been taken away from me, something that I believe is a right that nobody should lose. It’s depressing because my background is feeding my own family. We have very strong family values. I have a big duty of care that has been stripped away. And not being able to do that for myself I feel a failure in life. I feel very much a failure in life. The kids, I would have loved to do anything that the children would ask me for. But this position is a crippled life.

As a volunteer with the refugee service and as a leader for my own community, which is the Zimbabwean Community in the North East, I have witnessed people who are so depressed, who I can say they are now mentally disturbed, people who had skills but cannot use them anymore. It’s like somebody taking a certain measure of power away from you. If you lose that something, it won’t just go, it will go with a part of yourself that makes the You inside you.”

That is a powerful statement. There is appalling waste of human potential during that time; people can wait for years without working and contributing as they would dearly like to do.

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Scottish National Party, Glasgow South West

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Is there not another problem, in that the shortage occupation list does not recognise degrees from countries such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, which many asylum seekers have come from? The Government should have a look at that situation so that they can allow asylum seekers to work.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I agree. There are many ways in which verification becomes quite difficult when countries have been in a state of chaos.

I have one of the largest immigration case loads in Scotland in my constituency of Glasgow Central, and I regularly have asylum seekers at my surgery who are in dire straits as a direct result of Home Office policy. One constituent who came to me had fled political persecution in Sri Lanka in 2013. On claiming asylum in 2014, she was detained in Dungavel detention centre, where she was sexually assaulted by another detainee. She is now destitute and relies on charities for support. That bright young woman could be using the qualifications in business, which she gained, as it happens, from a UK further education college, to get a job and support herself. Instead, she has been so emotionally ground down by her experience of the system that she is deeply fearful for the future. Her heartbreaking case is part of a pattern of behaviour by the Home Office that in many cases treats those fleeing persecution with contempt.

Photo of Simon Danczuk Simon Danczuk Labour, Rochdale

The hon. Lady is making a good and important speech. There are far too many asylum seekers in Rochdale—more than 1,000—which is unfair in terms of how they are shared out across the country, but I completely agree with the point that she makes about work. Does she agree that if more were allowed to work, it would help with community cohesion in places such as Rochdale?

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cities)

I agree. People often do not understand that asylum seekers are not allowed to work. Media perceptions can be hugely damaging, including, as I mentioned earlier, to asylum seekers’ mental health. Many are keen to contribute but also scared, as I described in the example of my constituent whose volunteering was held against him. That puts fear into organisations that might take volunteers: they do not want to be caught out by the Home Office and get into trouble. Some of them employ people via the visa process. However, volunteers also do not want to come forward; they say, “If it is going to count against me, I am not going to volunteer. I am not going to help with interpreting.” If an organisation such as the Red Cross is seen as giving someone a bad character, that is difficult, and it definitely puts people off.

Another of my constituents has endeavoured to learn English to a high standard, and has taken up volunteering, supporting elderly people at a community centre. She has a clear aptitude for community work, but is unable to develop it because of the ban on work for asylum seekers. My constituent has two children, who go to a local school, but she is held back. She would love to do that work but cannot.

I am lucky to have the organisation Radiant and Brighter, founded by Pheona and Micheal Matovu, in my constituency. They came from Uganda to the UK and were unable to work for years, because of immigration controls. They were a couple with a family, used to working for a living, and found it very hard to be dependent on help from churches, family and friends. Pheona once told me how determined the two of them were not to let their children know they did not have a job, even when they were not permitted to work. Their experiences led them to find others in similar situations, and to discover the support that some asylum seekers and refugees required to transfer the skills they brought from their home countries and take up UK opportunities when they could. Radiant and Brighter provides practical day-to-day support and assistance, including personal coaching, advice on legal and financial matters and help with CVs—something that people might not be familiar with in their own countries—and job applications.

Crucially, Radiant and Brighter recognises the skills, talents and potential of asylum seekers and refugees beyond the narrow bounds of the shortage occupation list, appreciating the fact that asylum seekers can be a bonus to the UK, not a burden; the Minister would do well to speak to Pheona and Micheal and see for herself the work that they do in Glasgow to integrate and support asylum seekers. They have a good model for allowing people to make the jump to being productive members of Scottish and British society, as they want to be, and for supporting them in that.

Allowing asylum seekers to work would enable them to integrate better into society, develop their English and make friends in what can be a lonely environment—and a strange one, depending on where they have come from. Many are professionals, with skills that they would love to put to use and which would benefit our economy. By making a modest change to the immigration rules, so that they are similar to those of other European countries, and by relaxing the restrictions on working, we can give asylum seekers back a sense of dignity and self-confidence, while saving money for the public purse in the long run.

My hon. Friend Stuart C. McDonald is sponsoring an exhibition by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants in the Upper Waiting Hall this week. That organisation has campaigned for fair asylum and immigration law since 1967. I urge the Minister and other hon. Members to see the exhibition, if they have not already. It clearly demonstrates the contribution of people who have sought asylum in the UK over the years. Examples include the co-founder of Marks & Spencer, Michael Marks. There is nothing more British than Marks & Spencer. Michael Marks was born in 1859 in Slonim in what is now Belarus, which was then part of the Russian empire, and fled to England in 1882. It cannot be argued that he did not make a lasting contribution to the UK.

The children’s author and illustrator Judith Kerr fled Germany with her family in 1933 aged nine, just days before the Nazi party came to power. It cannot be argued that she is not a beloved part of British society. The supermodel, designer and refugee campaigner Alek Wek was born in 1977 in what is now South Sudan. The singer and actress Rita Ora arrived in the UK in 1991 aboard the last plane to accept Kosovan refugees. There are so many people who have come to our shores seeking safety. We should take pride in that and treat them with the dignity and respect they so greatly deserve. I appeal to the Minister to see the human potential in those whom we have made a commitment to protect.

Photo of Stuart McDonald Stuart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Immigration, Asylum and Border Control) 11:14, 11 January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss on bringing this important debate to the Chamber and on her fantastic speech, and I thank you, Mr Bailey, my hon. Friend and the Minister for allowing me to make a short speech. I was keen to take up the opportunity, because the matter is important to the Scottish National party. We have campaigned for change for a long time, and that is why we divided the House on the issue during the ping-pong stage of the Immigration Act 2016.

The Government’s position is to deny asylum seekers the right to work. The idea that after one year, an asylum seeker can apply for a shortage occupation job is just a small footnote, for a series of reasons, including the one pointed out by my hon. Friend Chris Stephens. It would be interesting if the Government would tell us how many asylum seekers have enjoyed that right. I understand that they have previously failed to answer written questions on that point.

Sadly, and typically for UK Government policy on asylum and migration issues in general, the position has little to do with principle and nothing to do with evidence, but everything to do with political posturing. Excluding people from the right to work is a lose-lose situation. It is bad for the individual, for the family, for the UK citizens who could benefit from the people in question using their skills, for community cohesion, as Simon Danczuk pointed out, and for the public purse, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central pointed out.

We are warned by the Government of the danger of creating a pull factor, but are we really to believe that people will decide to up sticks and come to the UK on the off chance of claiming asylum, becoming one of the minority of people who must wait longer than six months—outside the Government target—and then having the possibility of working? If so, where is the evidence for that? There is no evidence for it. Also, why do those asylum seekers not go to other European countries where there is such a right to work, and a more generous one? Yet again, we are the EU outlier. The whole proposition is nonsense, and I think that the Government know that.

Another argument that the Government sometimes use is that there would be a danger of asylum seekers deliberately frustrating the process, so that their claims would take longer than six months. However, that argument does not stack up. The Government have the power to refuse asylum claims on the basis of non-compliance. The argument does not make any sense.

We are dealing with human beings who have asked for international protection. That is an important right, whatever the outcome of the claim. Whether or not the claims are found to be sound in law, the applicants deserve dignity and fair treatment, so we ask the Government to think again.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department 11:17, 11 January 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bailey. I thank Alison Thewliss for raising such an important issue, and I commend her passionate speech. She is clearly pursuing the issue in the House with great vigour and determination. I also thank Stuart C. McDonald for his speech. I am sure to have said the name of his constituency wrongly, so I apologise. I noted also the remarks of Simon Danczuk. It is disappointing that the shadow Minister did not bother to come to the debate. I see that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that that is a sad reflection.

It is right to say that, as a general rule, we do not believe it is appropriate to allow asylum seekers to work in the UK. However, we will grant an asylum seeker permission to work in one of the jobs on the shortage occupation list if their claim has not been decided after 12 months, through no fault of their own. We believe that that is fair and reasonable; it protects the resident labour market and ensures that access to jobs is prioritised for British citizens and those with leave to remain, including refugees.

The immigration rules for non-EEA nationals wishing to work in the UK are designed to meet our needs for skilled labour and to benefit our economy. That approach would be undermined if non-EEA nationals could bypass the rules by lodging unfounded asylum claims. It is an unfortunate reality that some individuals make such claims in an attempt to stay in the UK. It is reasonable to assume that some do that because of the benefits—real or perceived—that they think they will gain.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will not; I have been generous in allowing the hon. Gentleman to make his speech. So that I have the opportunity to answer the serious points that have been raised, I will need to make my whole speech. If he feels that I do not address his concerns, I ask him to write to me.

Allowing asylum seekers earlier access to work risks undermining our asylum system by encouraging unfounded claims from those seeking employment opportunities for which they would not otherwise be eligible. We also must not create further incentives for asylum seekers to risk their lives attempting to travel here illegally. We instead want to encourage genuine refugees to claim asylum in the first safe country they reach.

I know there are those who say, as has been said today, that there is little evidence of a pull factor. I do not agree. We have seen the effect that policies in Europe have had in driving migrant behaviour. In 2015, following a shift in policy, Germany saw its asylum intake increase by 155%. More than 20% of those claims were from countries in the Balkans, which, mercifully and thankfully, have not seen conflict for more than 20 years.

There has been much debate, as has been referred to, about past delays in decision making by the Home Office, but that has been brought under control. In most cases, asylum seekers receive a decision within six months. While they are awaiting that decision, asylum seekers, who would otherwise be destitute, are entitled to free, furnished accommodation that is safe and of a good standard. In preparation for the debate, I met a Home Office official who personally inspects that accommodation in the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow Central and was assured of its quality and safety.

A cash allowance is given to asylum seekers to cover essential living needs. It is worth noting that in October, the High Court agreed that the methodology used by the Home Office for assessing the adequacy of payment rates is rational and lawful. The judgment also rightly rejected the argument that the rate should be the same or similar to that paid to benefit recipients by the Department for Work and Pensions. I do not accept that we are in some way treating people in an appalling or degrading way by providing that accommodation.

Photo of Sarah Newton Sarah Newton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department

I will not, because I want to address the points that the hon. Lady has raised.

It is worth noting that we encourage asylum seekers to undertake volunteering activities, so that they can benefit the community. That supports integration if they are granted protection, and addresses some of the self-esteem and respect issues that the hon. Lady rightly referred to. Opportunities will be provided in communities for people who are used to being providers for their families or community leaders in the countries from which they fled.

I was pleased to hear the intervention from my hon. Friend Julian Knight, who made an excellent point about the role the voluntary sector is playing in his community in supporting asylum seekers. For clarity, it is important to understand that those volunteering activities must not amount to unpaid work or job substitution. The Home Office recently published revised guidance to help clarify that issue, in case there is any uncertainty.

The current policy strikes the right balance. It is fair and reasonable towards genuine asylum seekers, it is consistent with our international obligations, and it takes into account the rights and needs of asylum seekers and our whole society.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.